A quiet creak spread forth through the room as he shut the door behind him and placed his coat on a metal hook jutting from the wall. Against the far side of the room was a set of large bookshelves towering over a radio with a picture frame perched atop it, facing an unlit brick fireplace a few feet to his right. Overlooking the room littered from wall to wall with newspaper clippings was a lone window, which plagued the occupants with images of the slums and clouds outside. Scattered through the center was a small sofa and a rocking chair situated on either side of a small table.
The house creaked as a gust of the late autumn wind, just as so many before had done, tried to tear this rotting prison down. I wonder…when is it going to fall…
Derek fished the wooden mask from a satchel hanging at his side before he dropped it beneath his coat and stepped to the sofa. With an exhausted sigh, he teetered back and collapsed into the suede cushion that smelled like a small animal had died inside.
"Gerard…where did you go? What the hell does this mask have to do with anything?" he questioned the ceiling, sullen and warped under the weight of snow left by many winters past. A clap of thunder answered his inquiries, shaking the walls and floor with its intensity. Listening to the storm outside his rotting retreat, he tried to sink deeper into the cushion and, with a groan, closed his eyes.
His ears were filled with a soothing, rhythmic patter as the rain renewed its assault. He grunted with a stir as his thoughts tumbled further and further into the recesses of his unconscious mind, unaware of anything but his own being.
It had faded. The light, the sound; all the world had died with not a whimper nor a plea, and all that existed to him now was the troubled depth of his dreams.
"Come to me…"
Derek Bradford was falling, twisting through the wind as it whistled over his ears. He didn't feel it, though. He didn't feel anything. He was numb, tumbling uncontrollably through the air with no end in sight.
A silver shimmer wavered beneath him and he struggled to make out its dull shine as he fell like a rag doll from the sky. Without warning, his form burst through the surface of a darkened lake and he sank deep into the water. Struggling, he tried to swim, tried to stop himself from descending too far.
"Why can't I swim?" his thoughts spread through the placid liquid and he stopped his motion, senses dull and mind blank under a trance. With no apparent need for oxygen burning at his lungs, the explorer fell feet first to the bedrock. He recoiled and stumbled back as he became aware of his surroundings once again.
Rather than the opaque black it should have been, the water here was a transparent blue and he could see with little effort. Fish passed by with little mind towards him as moss and crayfish meandered about in the current. He tried to push off with his legs and glide through the water, but he couldn't. His form merely fell back down to the sand beneath him.
"This…this isn't right…I should float, I should be able to swim." his thoughts echoed around him, distorted and muddled through the water. "What is this?" Again he tried and again he was met with the same unresponsive outcome.
A silver shimmer shone forth from the distance and he pushed forward in a sluggish pace through the water, grinding gravel and grit beneath his feet as he bounded slightly from each stride. He pressed on towards the dim light; continued forward until a massive wall of shadowed moss bore down on him like an impassible barrier, grinding his progress to a halt.
"What is this place?" the water echoed with his bewildered thoughts. The darkness crept over him as he parted the bleak vegetation and pulled a small patch to examine.
The moss itself was unremarkable, possessing no uncommon traits or characteristics. Mixed in with the clump of harmless leaves, however, was a number of stalks lined with hundreds of sharp, grained barbs. "Barbs? What kind of use does submerged plant life have for such a mechanism?"
Shrugging this information off, he pressed through the aquatic vegetation in the direction that he'd seen the shimmer. Further and further he went until his surroundings grew dark and he could not see the parting created upon his entry. He stopped, pondering whether or not he should turn back.
"It's not doing me any good to continue on like this. I need to head back and find that…thing." his thoughts again burst forth through the water and the vegetation seemed to move just a bit. The sense of touch returned to his being and in a shocking flash, the water was painfully cold.
A shriek echoed through the water and he turned to face the source. More of the plant mass shifted with unseen motion and he felt his head begin to throb. Wincing from the debilitating ache, he reeled back at a screech of metal that rang through the water, harsh and clear, unlike his thoughts.
The mass of aquatic plants began closing in on him, creeping closer and closer until he could feel the sharp black stalks scratch at his flesh. The screech of metal issued again and his head pounded as the moss danced all around him. It wrapped around his limbs and caught him in a snarl of vines and leaves. Bound, he tried to pull free while the barbs dug into his taut muscles. The painful throb in his head amplified through his struggling.
The screech again assaulted his ears, echoed in his pulsing head, and his vision began to fail. What little he could still see was an obscure mess of shadows and shapes that danced and jumped about him, taunting him. He closed his eyes and let panic wash over him as that dissonant screech again tore through the water.
A low gurgle met his ears and all motion around him grew still; the stalks released his limbs and withdrew from his immediate reach. Apprehensively, he turned to the direction that the sound had come from.
He could see nothing there, yet he could feel an unnerving stare wash over him, watching…waiting. He stepped back from the thing and, for a brief moment he could not explain, his blood turned to ice. His limbs burnt from the thousands of cuts and scratches left by the stalks and a silver light shimmered through the dark, growing ever closer. It parted the moss and painted for him the blurred outline of a figure through a veil of muck. The lone figure paced a short pattern behind its curtain of obscurity.
Derek traced his gaze back to the unseen observer and, eyes scanning the empty gap towering above him, shuddered in relief as his paranoia passed him by. With a weight lifted from his anxious tension, he returned to the muck veiled figure. To where a metallic mask now hung, glowering at him from several paces away. There was no blurred outline of a man, no motion -just a mask. He stepped forward, hand outstretched, and stopped while his ears sifted through the haunting silence.
"This isn't right…" His thoughts spread through the water.
"We have already granted you one of our masks, worm. By whose right do you stake claim to another?" a guttural voice uttered, clear as a bell and vastly different from anything else in this watery hell. "You have yet to prove your worth. Begone; I grow tired of your presence."
The bedrock beneath him melted into nothing and he fell. Down, into the abyss, he plunged into a cradle of solid stone bathed in pale moonlight. Again he was numb and his limbs refused to operate, but he stood shakily to his feet and stole a brief glance at his surroundings.
Nothing. Just shadows among shadows out past the boundaries of moonlight. A metallic flash burnt into his eyes and faded back into featureless obscurity as he reeled back in surprise. What was that? I'm not in the water anymore, why are things still stalking me? But how is that possible? I fell down! I should be-
"-Step outside the light and all will become clear. Where you are, what this place is…who has been stalking you through your descent. Don't you want to know the reasons why?" cooed a gentle laugh, echoing almost serenely through the shadowed gloom.
"The worm is ignorant! Allow him to be, don't taint his mind with your incessant rambling. He is below us!" A harsh yell issued forth at an alarming volume. He cringed and covered his ears as the resonating shout filtered away into the darkness. When the sound died, he lowered his hands from his head and felt a puff of icy breath brush against the back of his neck. He tried to move, tried to ply the sole of his boot from the stone. But he couldn't. Why-
"-His worth is for the Ravens to judge, not us lowly crows." A sullen, distorted whisper answered. Images and memories and thoughts that were not his filled his conscience, and it was all he could do to whimper through his paralysis. "You're my puppet now, for you possess my mask."
"The Ravens are bound to their temple while we are not. They cannot exercise their influence so widely as we can-"
"-But their influence spreads; ours does not." It was the whisper to answer again, grating against his eardrums as it plucked and pulled at his mind's strings.
"You are not subject to our inhibitions, insect. We are forbidden from stepping beyond the hollow bounds of mortal dreams and nightmares, but you…can. This mask will serve as a bond between our sanctity and your being. Take it, and with our blessings you will be sent forth, back into your world." Through the echoes dying around him, his head began its painful throb anew as control returned to him. A bell rang out and all hints of foreign puppetry on him died as it grew louder, closer.
He covered his ears as the deafening chime overtook his hearing completely and watched as a blanket of white fog flowed from the dark bounds beyond his sight. As it drew closer, a small shadow was carried through the mist and rose into his reach. The shadow grew to an angular mask, dull in its sheen, and he merely stared for a moment as the sound died in the mist. Tentatively, he withdrew his hands from his head and grasped the thing gingerly. It was warm, oddly enough, and its grain was that of poorly wrought and treated iron -rough and unrefined.
One glance at the object in his hands brought the whirling fog to a stop. One glance, and the familiar sensation of free-fall swept over him as the ground faded from beneath his feet. Limbs flailing in a fit of adrenaline, panic quickly took hold in his unprepared state. Twisting and thrashing, his form was met shortly with an impact he was faintly aware of and a gasp as his eyes shot open.
Reeling in shock and soaked with sweat, he leapt from his reclined position on the sofa and looked on at two objects that had fallen with a collective clatter to the floor. Both were masks; one was wooden -the one he had received from the courier, and the other was a dull grey which bore a number of odd symbols and marks inscribed onto its surface.
A crash of shattering glass rang through the empty room and he cringed, painfully aware now of the stiff muscles in his neck. He looked to the radio, to where a picture had only moments before watched over the still silence. What in God's name is happening? Bewildered, he strode to the mess of broken glass and pulled a photo from the scattered shards. A soft smile pulled at his aging features as his eyes scanned the old picture.
Arranged on the grayscale sheet, three people stood beside his younger image. A four-year old girl whose dress appeared a brilliant white stood between him and a woman with a ring glinting in the sun. Behind them, an elderly man stood stock still. They were all smiling, grinning like nothing was wrong. How were we supposed to know? He shook his head.
Dropping the photo onto the shelves nearby, he gathered the broken frame and threw the pieces onto the small pile of wood lying in the pit of the fireplace.
"Well…what do you think? Should I go with Monsieur Moreau? I know you never met him, but…he's a friend." he sighed. The house creaked in protest against the wind, and the stagnant air was displaced by the chilled draft that crept through the window. "Didn't think so." He shivered.
He pulled a book of matches from the bricks overhead, struck one of the sulfur-tipped sticks on the red stone, and threw it into the dead wood. As he watched the orange flame grow, his pupils contracted slightly and his thoughts turned back to the photo. Back to the day it was taken.
He shook his head. Don't. Do not dwell on it. That's…that's what she did, and she…she…Enough! Get out of your head and do something. Wiping at the tears welling up in his eyes, he stood and stepped to the radio. He turned a knob on the console and the device sprung to life, retrieving a morning news broadcast. Not really listening, he grabbed a book and returned to the sofa.
Upon opening the book to a random page, he was met with a flippant depiction of a demon-god known only by an ancient book that had been found in South Africa and subsequently studied by a 'Doctor Claire'. The concept was widely dismissed and believed to be the machinations of a madman, but the explorer had a nagging feeling sleeping in the back of his mind that this was anything but true.
It told of the evil and scorn that would befall the world if this abomination was freed -there were implications that he was bound, somehow, to a small brass idol by a rival deity. He filed these thoughts away and made a mental note to return to the pages dedicated to this demon-god later. He turned the page to the glossary with a chuckle.
"How do I get drawn into these things?" he smiled. He'd always had an inquisitive, often invasive curiosity regarding the human psyche, and had studied it enough to know that there was always a reason behind everything. Every action, every impulse, every thought; no matter how abstract, there was always an explanation.
A light, almost feathery whisper rode through the silence, quiet enough that he had to strain his ears to hear it clearly.
"Remember…" it said. The picture lying on the shelves fell from its perch and fluttered to his feet. With a huff, he grabbed the photo.
"Remember…" As he held it, patches of white in the family portrait burned to black and formed blots, then lines, then letters. His mind was blank as he watched the characters merge to form a cursive scripture unlike any other he'd seen. As a scholar, he was fascinated. But as a common man, he found himself staring in disbelief and shock as the spectral calligraphy scratched its message over the still image of his wife, child, and uncle.
"Remember…" His hair stood on end as the serene whisper read the message aloud. The word burned itself into his memory and haunting suspicion rang through his mind. "Remember their fates…For if you fail, they will not be the last."
'They will not be the last'…no one was murdered like they told me, then…they were taken by, by this thing, this…wraith.
"What is it that you want?" he muttered, as emotionlessly as his shocked-numb mind felt.
I need to speak to Frederic.
"You will be coming, then?" asked a tired looking Frederic, sipping at a cup of coffee as he eyed the muffins laid out before them in distaste. He had left everything else alone in favor of the acidic drink.
"Yes, I will. But I have a more…personal, interest in this temple. So tell me what your scholars think of it." He could see the gears in his friend's head turning. He could see it as the Frenchman's brow knitted and his mouth opened and closed, clearly searching for any information he had been handed in the hours leading up to his departure from the excavation site.
"Well, it's big, but we can't get in. The gates are sealed by rust and extremely concentrated chemical deposition. The iron holding them is weak -even if we could get the gates open, the hinges wouldn't hold. The gates would collapse and that would pose more problems than answers. That's one of the things you'll have to do when we get there: you need to find an alternative way in." He explained.
"What is the temple constructed of?" the explorer asked. He could feel the beginnings of a smile tugging at his mouth.
"It appears to be limestone, but we have not spent much time examining the temple itself. What does the material have to do with anything?"
"Some materials are sensitive to acidic compounds, many of which can be found in caverns. Limestone is one such material, as is marble. If it is constructed of limestone, then it might be a simple matter of looking where you haven't. You told me that a scholar got loose in there?"
"Yes, I did. What are you-"
"-Hasn't anyone been wondering how he got in?"
"We looked and never found a hole that he could have crawled through."
"Did you think about asking him how he got inside?"
"He's a madman, Derek! Only a fool trusts a madman!" Frederic shouted. Gazes from the people seated around them shifted and their table became the center of attention. Derek wore a thin smile as he looked into his friend's incredulous expression.
"Then we'll have to be a little bit foolish, won't we? My actions -scaling mountainous peaks as well as descending into a collapsed mine to retrieve a hurt worker, among others- are all foolish actions. They all pose more danger to my well-being than this schizophrenic does to yours. You'll have to trust me. If that means bringing a few armed guards to 'remove' the threat, should he be one, then so be it." He chided his friend. "You're going to have to let go of some of your inhibitions if you want to get somewhere with this."
"Fine, we can let the scholar lead us," Frederic conceded. "but I will take a few armed men down there with me."
"Then so be it." he said again. Your uncertainty isn't helping my decision. "Hey, Fred…"
"Yes, my friend?" he asked with the barest hint of a scowl on his sharp features.
"Are you…sure you want to go down there?" There was a moment of silence as each looked the other over. "Are you sure that what you'll find in that depth is absolutely worth the time and energy you're devoting to what might as well be a gamble? Are you without a doubt?"
"Why are you asking these things? Only moments ago, you were persuading me to let who is possibly the most unpredictable man in the camp down into the cavern with me. What's going on?"
"Well…what do you think of 'divine intervention'?"